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Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

TW: suffering, depression, abuse, death, grief

Being a human being, you may be familiar with suffering to some degree. You may have experienced financial insecurity, a natural disaster, bullying/abuse, the death of a loved one, or another kind of loss. I suffered through the death of my mother when I was only 18. It’s heartbreaking and can make you feel like your life is falling apart. When we suffer, we may feel compelled to ask, "Why is God allowing this to happen? Did I do something to deserve this?" When we see suffering in the world such as poverty, orphaned children, homeless families, accidental or needless deaths and injury, we wonder why God would allow the suffering of innocent people.

Defining "Innocent"

We do need to quickly note that no human being is truly "innocent," as the Bible is clear that we are all born sinners (Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:23). That doesn't mean that everyone who suffers deserves to suffer though. Take children, for example. When a child suffers because of an abusive parent, of course the child doesn't deserve to suffer. A person's sin can negatively affect other people, causing those others needless suffering.

The person who suffers from a genetic disease, cancer, or injury that they had zero control over did nothing to "deserve" it. Physical suffering in the world is a result of that initial sin that infected all of Creation long ago. Hunger, homelessness, a pandemic, natural disasters...they are also a result of the sin in people and in the natural world. Sadly, because of sin, suffering is a part of the human existence (John 16:33; Psalm 34:19).

Suffering is NOT Always a Result of Sin

We want to be 100% clear that just because someone suffers, that doesn't mean they automatically “deserved it.” Yes, some sins result in direct consequences that cause suffering, but not all suffering is caused by personal sin. So often, Christians are quick to place blame and link suffering with sin to justify the WHY. We want to believe that the suffering was preventable. If only they did the "right" thing or didn't do the "wrong" thing, then they wouldn't be in the situation they're in. Surely, they did something to deserve it...

We play those games with ourselves too. We say, "If only I _____" or "If only I didn't _____." We may become wracked with guilt and shame, thinking we must have done something wrong, and that God is punishing us. We start to think, "I must deserve this suffering."

Well, Jesus had something radically different to say about suffering. When He and His disciples encountered a man who was born blind, the disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They assumed the man's blindness was a result of sin—either his or his parents—because surely an innocent person would not be made to suffer. But Jesus blew their minds by saying, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3). Jesus confirmed that the man's blindness wasn't anyone's fault but that it would show God's miraculous works.

A Godly Perspective on Others' Suffering

As Jesus taught His disciples, suffering serves a purpose. With the blind man, God had a higher purpose for this man living with blindness his whole life. Jesus healed the man, and the miracle caused a major kerfuffle, spawning many questions and conversations about who Jesus was. (Read the whole story in John 9.) This was all a part of God's plan to spread the news about Jesus' true identity as the "Son of Man" (John 9:35-38).

Another time, Jesus was told about the massacre of some Galileans "whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices," and He responded, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). Then Jesus brought up a recent tragedy that occurred just outside the walls of Jerusalem by saying, "...those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4-5).

Jesus' message in this passage had two points: 1. Whether the suffering is a result of someone else's sin (Pilate’s slaughter of the Galileans) or the suffering is due to natural causes (the fall of the tower), we should NOT assume that the victims are somehow "bad" or deserving of death. 2. We should not be concerned about someone else's sinfulness, rather we need only worry about our OWN reconciliation with God.

Why do we have to suffer?

Living in this broken world means we will experience pain and suffering at times—until we are with Christ. Tragedy, pain, and suffering are all part of living in a sinful world, but it doesn't mean that God is punishing us when there was nothing to punish. Remember, some sins DO result in direct consequences that cause suffering in our own lives or the lives of others. Generally, we can connect those dots pretty easily. But sometimes the reasons why we suffer that nothing to do with anything we have done.

When God does allow suffering, we can be assured He always has a purpose. Our suffering will serve one of three purposes in our lives:

1. Suffering brings us closer to God.

Jesus is described as our anchor in the storm (Hebrews 6:19). Those "storms" in our lives give us an opportunity to hold fast to God while the waves of pain, temptation, and suffering wash over us. Suffering can compel us to run to our Heavenly Father for safety, and He's able to provide comfort and love (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). God is faithful, and we can rely on Him in the midst of suffering (Psalm 23).

2. Our response to suffering speaks to our faith.

Our response to personal suffering can be a self-check of our faith. Faithful followers of Christ, "the pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Hebrews 12:2), will not allow suffering to destroy their relationship with God (Romans 8:18). This doesn't mean that we won't experience grief or sorrow; it means that we invite God into our suffering rather than push Him away (Romans 5:3-5; 1 Peter 5:10). When we see others suffering, our response ought to be mercy and compassion (Romans 12:15)—not cruel words or judgment (Matthew 7:1-2).

We can "count trials as joy" (James 1:2), for “blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Suffering tests our faith, and a godly response proves our faith to be genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). When we undergo sufferings and stand up under them (even if on unsteady feet), we can be assured that our faith in Jesus is authentic.

3. Suffering keeps us focused on the world to come.

Without darkness, there is no hope for light. Without suffering, there is no hope for something better. If our lives were perfect, we would grow complacent in our faith and get a bit too comfortable with this world. 1 John 2:15 says that we can't worship God while we worship the world. Our suffering reminds us that this world is not where we belong (John 17:16; Romans 8:18).

Undergoing trials and suffering is painful, yet all that suffering has divine purpose (Romans 8:28). God will help us through those feelings of sorrow, grief, and pain (Psalm 23). We do not have to go it alone. Draw closer to God and the people God has placed in your life (Galatians 6:2). Hold close those who suffer, showing them love and support (John 13:34-35). When we see or experience suffering, we can be assured that Creator of the universe is at work.

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TL;DR

Suffering happens because all of creation is infected by sin. While some sins result in direct consequences that cause suffering, not all suffering is caused by personal sin. Jesus taught that we should not judge others based on how they suffer—whether the suffering is a result of someone else's sin, an accident, natural disaster, or any other reason (Luke 13:1-5). Just because someone is suffering, that doesn't mean they “deserved” it. God allows suffering for divine purposes (John 9). Our suffering brings us closer to God (Psalm 23), tests our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7), and keeps us focused on our true home in Heaven (John 17:16).

By: Vivian Bricker

Vivian loves learning, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She is dedicated to helping people learn more about Jesus and is ready to help in any way she can. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, cooking, drawing, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, you can find her soaking up the sunshine or going on an adventure.

Writer/Editor: Catiana N.K.

Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.

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